Academic journal article Philosophy Today

What Measure Now? A Survivor's Reflections on the Holocaust

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

What Measure Now? A Survivor's Reflections on the Holocaust

Article excerpt

"The general possibility of evil ... consists in the fact that, instead of keeping his selfhood [Selbstheit] merely as the grounding potentiality [Basis] or the instrument [Organ] man can strive to elevate it to be the ruling and universal will [zum Herrschenden and zum Allwillen zu erheben], and, correspondingly, try to make what is spiritual in him into a means."

F. W. J. Schelling, Of Human Freedom1

"Evil [Das Bose] is not derived from finitude in itself [an sick], but from a finitude which has been exalted to independent being [aus der zum Selbstseyn erhobenen Endlichkeit]."

Schelling, Of Human Freedom2

"[ ...] evil is not derived from the principle of finitude in itself [fur sick], but only from the dark and selfish [selbstischen] principle which has been brought into intimacy [Intimitat] with the centre. And just as there is an enthusiasm [Enthusiasmus] for the good, there is also an enchantment [Begeisterung] with evil."

Schelling, Of Human Freedom3

"The entire tradition has understood evil as ego-ism, and egoism as the fury that by itself determines the undetermined absolute, finitising the infinite and infinitising the finite."

Jean-Luc Nancy,4

The Experience of Freedom

"What the Germans have done withdraws [entzieht sick] from understanding, particularly by psychology, just as, indeed, their horrors [die Greuel] seem to have been committed rather as measures of blind planning and alienated terrorization [planvoll and entfremdete Schreckma(beta)nahmen] than for spontaneous gratification. According to eye-witness reports, the torturing and murdering was often done without pleasure [lustlos] , and perhaps for that reason so utterly without measure [fiber alles Ma(beta) hinaus]. Nevertheless, a consciousness that wishes to withstand the unspeakable finds itself again and again thrown back on the attempt to understand, if it is not to succumb subjectively to the madness that prevails objectively. The thought obtrudes [sick drangt] that the German horror [das deutsche Grauen] is a kind of anticipatory revenge [vorweggenommene Rache]. Germany's position in the competition between imperialist powers was, in terms of the available raw materials and of her industrial potential, hopeless in peace and war. [ ...] To commit Germany to the final struggle in this competition was to leap into the abyss [in den Abgrund springen], so the others were pushed into it first, in the belief that Germany might thereby be spared."

Theodor Adorno,

"Unmeasure for Unmeasured,"

Minima Moralia 5

More Questions than Answers

At the end of The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi included a discussion of some of the letters he had received following the publication, in Germany, of a translation of his book, Se questo e un uomo.6 His reflections on these letters resumes the discussion in "Useless Violence", an earlier chapter, in which, as an Italian Jew who survived the Hell-realm of Auschwitz, he attempts to comprehend why and how the evil of the Shoah took place. In this chapter, he asks:

Were we witnessing the rational development of an inhuman plan or a manifestation (unique in history and still unsatisfactorily explained) of collective madness? Logic intent on evil or the absence of logic?7

And he observes that, "As so often happens in human affairs, the two alternatives coexisted."8 He then ventures the thought that any explanation of the Shoah must examine certain features of what he takes to be the German mentality-in particular, a certain "arrogance and radicalism, hubris and Grundlichkeit (thoroughness); insolent logic, not insanity."9

The suggestion that there may be two different "logics" of evil at work is intriguing, since it may be argued that the Holocaust would not have been possible if complacency and indifference-the banality of evil manifested in administrative hierarchies, plans and routines that enabled a large number of people to avoid recognizing, experiencing, feeling, and understanding what they were doing-had not collaborated with brute force, willful brutality and violence-the evil of some terrifyingly twisted wills. …

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